The Online Spaces of the Final Generation
This document was produced by Samantha Boucher for the Mayor’s Council Against Hate. It is a subjective narrative, written from the online culture-immersed perspective of a digital native, and is designed to give a simple overview and provide a starting point for additional reading and research. Ms. Boucher Co-Chairs the Council Against Hate’s Public Policy Action Team and is the Executive Director of Chattanooga Queer Community Forum.
“The Final Generation”
Some refer to Generation Z — those born, roughly, from the mid-1990s onward — as ‘The Final Generation’. This is not due to some apocalyptic vision of the future, but rather as a reflection of the nature of culture in online spaces.
In previous generations, it could be reasonably assured that a monoculture would develop. Because of the nature of the distribution of media and the limited ways in which it could be communicated, entire generations of youth would grow up with roughly the same cultural experiences — watching the same shows and cartoons, consuming the same film and radio programs.
This meant that youth and young adults, generally, would develop similar mindsets about the world along generational lines. Shaped by a combination of their parents’ mindsets, the public media they were exposed to, and their educations, they would go on to become relatively homogenous cultural groups.
The manner of communication about radical ideologies and extremism would be relatively limited and focused in a geographic way. Communities developed around interests and topics, but these were largely limited by the constraints of the physical world.
The internet changed everything
What previously was a monoculture splintered into tens of thousands of tiny subcultures, amorphous and fluid, is constantly shifting. Generation Z does not experience these subcultures as separate and distinct, but as the sum of their parts and influences. The life of a digital native is one of constant change, and equal parts consumption and creation of content.
This means that the final generation will continue to blur obvious generational boundaries into a constantly and ever-evolving cultural zeitgeist, that is undefinable by physical space, existing cultural boundaries, age group, or national origin. Future ‘generations’ may not develop a distinct monocultured identity based on a single, easily understandable and easily consumable media set, preferring instead to join the cultural zeitgeist and define their identity as a highly personal reflection of their experience.
The nature of online space and community
For digital natives — those who consider themselves a part of the fluid cultural zeitgeist — the internet does not feel like a single destination, but rather a vast network of virtualized physical space, made up of a complex web of shifting platforms, subspaces, and groups.
This space can transcend the physical realities that have confined humanity for most of our history, meaning that like-minded people can congregate even if they would normally belong to a minority or lone voice.
This can be a positive effect — for example, the ability for LGBTQ+ persons to congregate online and discuss their shared experiences in the physical world has allowed for complex organizing and great strides in public awareness and civil rights.
But it can also have a dark side. The dissemination of radical ideas is far easier, as is the spreading of hate. As we saw with the recent El Paso shooting, a space like 8chan (a highly anonymous image-posting board like 4chan) can play an integral role in the radicalization of a violent actor, and also create a feedback loop of action and hate when those actors return to the same spaces to share and discuss their actions in the physical world. 8chan, for its inherent toxicity and role in the recent shooting, was shut down by the hosting company that provided servers for it.
But this isn’t limited to a single platform, and it never will be. At the end of the day, these ideas will always flourish because if one space is eliminated, it does not eliminate the community around that space or make it more difficult for that community to connect or share ideas. Online space is constantly shifting and amorphous — anyone can set up a webserver in their closet to host content, and anyone can create a server on Teamspeak (a multi-channel voice application) or on Discord (a server/group-based chat application popular in the gaming world).
So we have to take our fight not to the spaces, but to the underlying culture itself.
One pathway to radicalization
This is an example of one possible path to connecting to a radical community and becoming radicalized to, for the sake of example, a white supremacist ideology.
- Someone begins on Youtube, watching a political clip from a partisan, but mainstream, source.
- They receive an advertisement, or a video automatically recommended by the algorithm, which is designed to show users similar content or content they may find interesting. This next view leads them to subsequent content. Because of confirmation bias, users will tend to self-select content that agrees with their perspective and reinforces it, rather than contrasts their viewpoints.
- The user stumbles upon a radicalizing piece of content by a white supremacist and begins their journey down the “rabbit hole”. Because this shifts the overton window in their mind, they may increasingly accept radical content that reinforces their beliefs, such as conspiracy theories or misrepresentation of reality. The user subscribes to the content creator based on this single video.
- The user begins being served more content from this content creator, and similar ones, due to the algorithm and continues to absorb the information.
- At the recommendation of a video from that very same content creator, and feeling disconnected from any community in which these ideas can be freely discussed, the user joins an online community (such as a web forum or Discord chat) and is introduced to others who may express similar or more radical views.
- The person has progressed from consuming information and content and progresses to discussing that information and content.
- The next step becomes to act on that information and content. A smaller portion of users will reach that stage for various reasons — and it may take many forms. They may choose to create content of their own, remix existing content and share it with their own personal networks or take real action in the physical world like attending an event. Many of these radicalized actors will weave discrimination and hatred into their day-to-day lives in the physical world wherever possible, and the most radical and extreme of these persons will go on to commit organized or lone-wolf acts of extremist violence, vandalism, and hate crimes.
We have seen how this pathway transcends platforms and borders to become a truly amorphous, culturally agnostic and platform-agnostic path to radicalization. There are many such possible paths and the internet provides many such “rabbit hole” effects. While some tech company representatives will dispute that this phenomenon exists or that it is intentional, the platform providers have a monetary incentive to design systems that can enable this type of progression, and the content creators have an ideological incentive to further facilitate the transition and radicalization of these actors.
Age is not a factor — censorship is not the answer
One challenge of navigating internet content and communities is that any digital native or digital citizen (someone who has adopted the internet as a significant part of their daily life) can fall victim to these types of influences. This can happen to a 14-year-old white boy from rural Kentucky, alone in his bedroom, as easily as it can happen to a 57-year-old disenfranchised Polish immigrant from New York City.
The difference in these two? The initial input — their backgrounds, life experiences, and social circles.
Of course, people on either end of the age scale can be more susceptible to radicalization. Youth, on one hand, do not have the experience needed to successfully parse the vast amounts of content they may consume on a regular basis. Because the internet is their world many cases, particularly those who are more isolated, it is difficult to discern for themselves the difference between objective reality and subjective opinion.
For older persons who are not experienced digital citizens — particularly those whose upbringing was in a monoculture that they could usually trust to be an accurate reflection of reality (or at least that it would have a basis in reality to be allowed into the monoculture’s curated media formats) they may experience a level of trust in the veracity of media and content that is unwarranted.
However, prohibition — for example, preventing a young person from accessing the internet at all — is not the answer, because it may actually cause the resentment and social isolation which can lead to future radicalization that the prohibition sought to prevent in the first place.
And highly regulating what type of content can be accessed (by, for instance, controlling which sites a young person can visit) is not necessarily an effective tool for the prevention of radicalization, either. As we covered earlier in this document, these spaces are not contiguous. That is to say that this content and the interactions driven by it are spread across a variety of platforms — from websites, to chat rooms, to video gaming environments and even to the comments section on content itself.
So, what is the solution? I don’t know — and I do not believe that there is a silver bullet.
Instead, I think that it is incumbent upon those of us who can act as authoritative sources or trusted sources of information in the lives of our friends, family, classmates, colleagues, children, parents, teachers and neighbors to use the person’s existing trust in us to help them to parse the information they may be receiving.
To challenge falsehoods, encourage critical thinking, and teach skills that can help the most vulnerable populations to this type of manipulation identify and maintain a sense of healthy skepticism.
To encourage and facilitate exposure to diverse viewpoints and people of diverse backgrounds (racially, ethnically, gender, politics, religion and more).
It is my belief that only by personally experiencing the objective reality of a thing can the subjective ‘reality’ of radicalization be avoided, in any direction.